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Men's Rock Climbing Shoe Buying Guide

By Matt Bento ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Monday May 11, 2020
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So you've spent a few nights climbing in the gym, and now you're ready to jump in the car for a marathon drive to Yosemite to climb its hallowed walls. But first, you have the unenviable task of selecting the right climbing shoes. Sifting through an endless jumble of masochistic designs with fast car names feels light years away from the walls of your dreams. They say nothing great comes easy, but they never warned you about shoe shopping. Fortunately, we're here to help. Our buying advice article will help you narrow down the selection so you can spend less time returning bad shoes and more time outside in a vertical paradise.

Styles of Climbing Shoes


What Type of Climbing Will You Be Doing?

Are you trapped in the flatlands, limited only to gym climbing? Do you crave endless sandstone splitter cracks or steep limestone caves? How about techy granite faces or holdless slabs? There's no shoe that's great at everything. An aggressive downturned shoe designed for the steeps isn't going to very comfortable on a long low-angle romp. Therefore, the first step of climbing shoe shopping is identifying the type of climbing you plan to do, and then find a shoe to match that plan.

Many trad shoes  like this Scarpa Maestro  have a stiff sole to protect your feet during painful jams.
Many trad shoes, like this Scarpa Maestro, have a stiff sole to protect your feet during painful jams.

Trad and Crack Climbing


La Sportiva TC Pro climbing shoe
Traditional climbing can involve an enormous array of techniques, but when people refer to a "trad shoe," they usually mean flat-soled shoes that are designed for crack climbing. Typically, for crack climbs, you want a shoe with enough room for your toes to lay flat which will greatly enhance your comfort when you're stuffing them inside a crack.

The ability to get your foot inside a crack depends on the size of the crack the profile of the shoe's toe. A larger profile toe, such as that found on the La Sportiva TC Pro, usually includes additional materials to pad your feet and reduce the discomfort. These type of shoes are popular for moderate trad climbs or gaping off-width cracks, but sneaking them into a narrower crack can be challenging. Thus, on thinner cracks, many climbers prefer a smaller profile that allows them to fit the maximum amount of their foot inside the crack. The Five Ten Moccasym, for example, has a thin rand and narrow profile, which makes it a common choice for those climbing harder cracks that are less than hand-size.

The other dimension that effects trad shoe choice is the length of the route. You might be able to endure a bit of foot pain on a single-pitch project, but the same pain would become unbearable on a 1,200 foot ramble. Generally, shoes with a stiffer sole will improve your comfort when standing on edges and help prevent foot fatigue on longer days. Stiffer shoes, however, reduce sensitivity and can feel clunky even after they're broken in. Supple, sensitive shoes, in contrast, can improve your tactile sensation for the rock but may leave your feet in agony at the end of a long day. For this reason, we generally recommend beginner trad climbers go with a stiffer shoe, at least until their feet have gained the strength to handle a softer shoe.

Some bouldering shoes are incredibly soft to enhance sensitivity.
Some bouldering shoes are incredibly soft to enhance sensitivity.

Bouldering and Sport Climbing


As a good rule of thumb, the steeper the climbing gets, the more aggressive or downturned you want your shoe to be. Shoes like the La Sportiva Katana, La Sportiva Genius, Scarpa Instinct VS or Evolv Shaman are all shaped so the shoe turns dow" from the heel to the toe. When worn, these "downturned" shoes cause your foot to arch, allowing you to direct more power through the toe or pull your lower body into the wall.

Super steep climbing also frequently involves creative footwork like heel hooks, toe hooks, or gymnastic combinations of the two. Many sport and bouldering specific shoes feature ergonomic heel cups and rubber across the top of the foot for added grip when hooking, such as those found on the Scarpa Chimera and Evolv Oracle, respectively.

Appropriate sizing for steep, hard climbing varies from shoe to shoe. To achieve high level performance, a shoe may have to be uncomfortable to wear for more than a pitch or two. Our recommendation is to size your shoes to match your own attitude. If you're only focused on pushing the grades, a tight-fitting, aggressively shaped shoe might be best for you. If your enjoyment is more critical, we recommend a more comfortable shoe with a flatter sole and more generous sizing. Shoes for the steepest styles of climbing are often on the soft side to improve your ability to pull yourself into the wall with your toes. For vertical or less than vertical climbing, it's better to go with stiffer, more supportive shoe as you balance all of your weight on your big toe. Specialized shoes in either category tend to be on the upper end of the price range.

A bargain shoe like the Tarantulace can't off the same performance as an expensive premium model. Nevertheless  the Tarantulace receives overwhelming positive customer reviews.
A bargain shoe like the Tarantulace can't off the same performance as an expensive premium model. Nevertheless, the Tarantulace receives overwhelming positive customer reviews.

Gym Climbing and Beginner Shoes


La Sportiva Tarantula
There are several schools of thought regarding how to choose your first pair of climbing shoes. Our best advice is to try-on as many pairs as you can to get a sense for which fit your feet the best. Companies occasionally offer demos at climbing gyms, which can be a great opportunity to a sense for how different designs actually climb. As our testers can attest, the relationship between how a shoe feels on the ground compared to how it will feel on the rock is not always an easy thing to assess.

We also advise that new climbers choose inexpensive shoes for their first few pairs because they are likely to wear through rubber quickly while learning proper footwork. During this time, it's common for many beginners to drag their toes across the wall. Such sloppiness will quickly wear through even the thickest sticky rubber quickly. Within the field of less expensive shoes, the La Sportiva Tarantulace and Evolv Defy Black are both great options. By the time you wear though a pair or two, your technique will have improved enough that you should be ready to upgrade to a pricier, higher performance shoe.

Typically, inexpensive, entry-level shoes won't climb as well, but this is not a hard and fast rule. If you find the right shoe, forking out a little extra cash is worth it to have something that you can grow with, and that won't hold you back. Irrespective of the price, your shoes need to be comfortable. Not grandma's slippers comfortable, but something you can easily tolerate wearing for a while.

For gym climbing, get whatever suits your climbing ambitions. We often size tight and aggressive for steep routes and bouldering and maintain a flatter, looser fit if you're new to climbing, cruising, or just getting some exercise.

Our feet took a real beating testing climbing shoes on hundreds of feet of crack.
Our feet took a real beating testing climbing shoes on hundreds of feet of crack.

Fit Considerations


Aggressive Shape


Downturned toes like the La Sportiva Solution or Evovl Shaman are everywhere these days. The more downturned a shoe, the more your toes bunch up in the front. Sizing downturned shoes loosely will mean that you have extra material on top of your foot where your arched toes should be. When you climb in an oversized shoe, that excess material can bunch up, both getting in the way and making the shoe less comfortable. If you're in the market for down-turned shoes, remember to keep them snug. That doesn't mean they have to hurt, but a snug fit should perform best and be reasonably comfortable once broken in.

Tightness


There is a lot of subjective information out there regarding how you should size your shoes. For sport climbing and bouldering, there is a pretty strong correlation between the difficulty of the climb and your shoe size: as the number grade of the climb increases, the number of your shoe size decreases. Shoes like the Scarpa Instinct, Butora Acro and La Sportiva Genius have a particularly tight feel and perform better because of that snug fit. However, there is a limit to an increase in tightness increasing performance. If your feet hurt so much that you can't climb, you've gone too far. Tight shoes also work for sport climbs and bouldering because you tend not to be on the rock for very long.

If you size your shoes too tight  like this tester  you may have to resort to rappelling barefoot.
If you size your shoes too tight, like this tester, you may have to resort to rappelling barefoot.

On multi-pitch climbs, whether sport or trad, you'll want to size your shoes more loosely. Especially for trad climbing, having a flatter-toed shoe can benefit you when climbing cracks. You can compensate for a slightly larger size by choosing a shoe with a stiffer sole. Even on longer multi-pitch sport climbs, a less aggressive shape (less downturned, more symmetrical) will keep your feet from getting thrashed, with a relatively minimal drop in performance.

Again, doing some research will go a long way for you. Before you buy, decide what type of climbing you'll mostly be doing with the shoe, try on several and size them accordingly. A few things to consider: unlined shoes will stretch more over the lifetime of the shoe, so plan accordingly. Half sizes also matter. Don't be afraid to adjust your sizing as you learn more and your feet grow stronger. A slightly larger shoe won't impact your climbing very much at all and can make a world of difference regarding comfort.

A low volume shoe like the Vapor V on the left generally performs better in cracks. If crack climbing isn't your thing and your foot is on the narrow side  the Tarifa (right) provides a glove-like fit.
A low volume shoe like the Vapor V on the left generally performs better in cracks. If crack climbing isn't your thing and your foot is on the narrow side, the Tarifa (right) provides a glove-like fit.

Brand and Sizing


Sizing is the biggest crux when purchasing climbing shoes, especially if shopping online. If you can, go out and try on various brands and sizes before you buy. Evolv, FiveTen, and Butora seem to run small, now making it possible to size your rock shoes the same as your street shoes. La Sportiva and Scarpa are pretty consistent but require that you calibrate your street shoe size to their sizing regime. For us, it means we buy these European brands in a size that is 1 to 1.5 sizes lower than our ordinary street shoes. We had to size the long, narrow Tenaya shoes two full sizes down from our streets shoe size before our toes were snug against the front of the shoe.

Stretch


The shoe that you take out of the box the first day you climb with it will not be the same after you've worn it for awhile. All shoes stretch, some more than others, so it is important to know whether a shoe is lined so you can account for how they will feel after they wear in.

Unlined leather shoes, like the La Sportiva Skwama or La Sportiva TC Pro, stretch more than synthetic shoes, so factor that in when making a purchase. An important caveat, however, is that leather shoes with a lining may stretch very little, instead only molding themselves to your feet with little change in overall length. How much should you size down when buying unlined leather shoes to account for stretch? That depends a lot on the brand and model, and there will be a little trial and error here. In general, to get the right fit from your unlined leather shoe, size them a little tighter, and expect them to be mildly uncomfortable, with the discomfort decreasing as they wear in. The result should produce a comfortable shoe. Unlined slippers like the Five Ten Moccasyms can stretch up to a size and a half, while velcro and lace-up models are usually closer to a single full size. Synthetic shoes hardly stretch at all, so make sure they are fairly true to size when you buy.

Gathering a little information on the shoe you are going to buy will help you make this decision. What does the manufacturer say about the shoe? What materials were used to construct the shoe? What is the design of the shoe? These are all proper questions to ask and will help guarantee you stay stoked with your decision.

The author "working" late into the evening. Stiffer shoes like the Butora Acro shown here are fantastic for vertical edging.
The author "working" late into the evening. Stiffer shoes like the Butora Acro shown here are fantastic for vertical edging.

Rubber Stickiness


Arguments over rubber can stratify opinions more than any other aspect of climbing. As a general rule, stickier rubber will be less durable, while slicker rubber could reduce performance but will last longer. Really soft rubber that is ultra-sticky will wear out fast. Harder rubber holds an edge longer but doesn't function as well when you paste your foot on the rock. Consequently, we tend to use different rubber types for various applications. Softer rubber for high-performance sport and bouldering shoes will typically work better for everything other than steep edges. When just starting out as a climber, harder, more durable rubber is probably the better choice.

Laces, Velcro, and Slipper


There are three main types of tightening system: velcro straps, lace-ups, and closure-less slippers. Lace-up shoes are the most adjustable, and typically provide the most secure, customizable fit for your rock shoes. All those strings, however, make them a little slower to put on and take off. For this reason, lace-ups models are often designed for roped climbing where you will wear them longer and put on/off less frequently. Velcro shoes go on and off easier, and some of the smarter designs do tighten almost as well as lace-ups. For sport, bouldering, or gym climbing, velcro shoes are exceptional because of the number of transitions between street shoes and rock shoes you will make in a day. They can work well on multi-pitch days too, if you want to pop the velcro for a little relief at the belay. Slippers are arguably the most sensitive and comfortable shoes out there. They are also generally unlined, which means they stretch and form to your feet more. This makes them more comfortable but can also decrease their performance on small edges. They are very easy to take off and make great gym or bouldering shoes, and the minimalist upper often means that they are easy to sneak into thin cracks.

Laces can wear out, get torn up by cracks, and get turned into rappel anchors (don't do that). Just be ready to replace them when they start to look worked. Velcro will get mucked up if you leave it open when you're storing the shoes. Keeping the velcro closed when you're not using your shoes will also help maintain the shape of the shoe longer.

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